Geetanjali Mukherjee

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Loving your work

This seems to be a perennial argument I have over and over with people in my life, especially my parents. I know millenials are uniquely subject to criticism about this, but there has always been a debate about just doing a job for the paycheck versus finding something that you love to do. Of course, the ideal is the latter but most of us settle for the former. And some of us actually don’t believe that you can love your work or every aspect of it.

Whenever I had this conversation with either of my parents, it always turned into a lecture. About how they handled their careers. My mom always told me that if you were bored at your job, you weren’t paying enough attention. There was so much to find interesting, you just had to dive in. If something is boring on the surface, go digging deeper. Find the interesting aspects, the cool stuff that hides underneath the surface. She told me that no matter what job she had, she always loved it and found it interesting. And challenged me to do the same. 

I tried. My first job was a part-time office job at the university alumni office. The hours were flexible and my co-workers were great, so I liked the job. But there was no way around the fact that it was the most mind-numbingly boring hours I spent at university, trying to stay awake while sticking stamps on envelopes and putting labels, stuffing letters to alumni for donations. Or filing papers. And doing it all over again the next day. At least now I would probably have listened to an audiobook; at the time I only thought over and over again how much I disliked the job. But I found ways to make it more interesting. I learned everyone’s coffee and tea preferences and brought them a cuppa just the way they liked it. They were thrilled and I was happy to have an excuse to get up and move around. I helped organize piles of marketing materials and brochures that were stacked in open boxes and strewn around various cupboards; I managed to corral the spread-out mess into neat labelled magazine holders in one cupboard. The entire office came to admire my handiwork and applauded; they had never imagined that the ugly mess could be transformed. I had no idea that I had a hidden talent for organizing, I was simply trying to get out of doing even more filing. Eventually I got promoted and answered the telephone and dealt with the mail. But the job never really became particularly interesting. 

Some years later I had another part-time gig, this time organizing photos of stamps for a professional collector who bought and sold items on eBay. It was equally mind-numbing, and I passed the time listening to audiotapes for the upcoming bar exam I was swotting for at the time. Nothing had really made this job any easier, but it did get better when I was allowed to do it from home after I sprained my ankle and could no longer walk to work. 

Other jobs I have had may have certain interesting elements, but I never really loved the work. I am not even sure I loved most aspects of the work. According to my dad, there are always some parts of the job that are tedious and boring. Maybe you enjoy talking to customers, but you don’t like the paperwork and admin part you have to do. Or you like doing research and writing reports but you hate the weekly team meetings. My dad always said you have to be prepared to handle the parts of the job you don’t like or find tedious, in order to enjoy the parts you do like. While that makes sense, it is also eminently practical. Too practical for my romantic notions of life and work. 

You see, for a period of time I had a job that I loved. I know its rare, but I enjoyed every single aspect of it. Sure, there were parts that were more interesting than others, meatier. But I even managed to love the grunt work, the tedious boring busy work that typically people hate and put off. I too put off things, but more because I was afraid or didn’t know enough or simply procrastinated. But when I actually sat down to do the work, I loved every second. 

For a few lucky years, I got to spend the majority of time running an indie publishing house. I wrote my own books, edited them myself and managed the entire publishing and marketing process. I did my own design work, managed social media accounts and reached out to bloggers, working on getting reviews and crucial marketing pushes. There was a steep learning curve and I was constantly out of my depth. But I loved every second. I loved staying up till 2 am, formatting the manuscript so that it would go out to the stores on time for launch day. I loved fixing every single error that prevented my file uploading and checking every single link to ensure that the reading experience was smooth. I loved making 20 versions of my book cover and getting an informal poll to see which one worked better. I loved receiving emails from bloggers who agreed to review my book. ( I liked slightly less sending out emails to bloggers that went unanswered). But there was no aspect of the work I found tedious, or boring, or sleep-inducing. I wouldn’t have outsourced the work even if I had the budget to do so, I loved every minute. And when it became clear that I was not making the kind of money I needed to and I had to move on (or at least get a day job and relegate this to the margins of my life), I still hadn’t lost my enthusiasm for the work. Or my desire to get better enough at it that one day it might be a viable concern. 


I enjoy my current job, most of the time. There are many aspects of the job that has improved my life, not least the fact that I spend my days talking to actual human beings and interacting with others, instead of spending all day along asking myself if I should use Garamond or Cambria for that heading. I get to do work that is mostly interesting and work with intelligent people with varied backgrounds. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that there are many tedious and less palatable aspects to the work as well. This is probably what my dad referred to when he said all jobs have aspects that aren’t fun, but you simply have to do them anyway. I get that. But I also know what it is like to do work that you love completely, with no exceptions. And I’m not sure if you can always have that, but it sure would be nice to have it again. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Guest Post: Why I Write YA Fiction

Today I have a guest post from YA author Doug Solter on why he writes YA fiction. 

First, I would like to thank Geetanjali for allowing me do a guest post on her blog. Today I'd like to share with you why I write young adult fiction. 
I sometimes ask myself this question, “why do I like writing stories about teenagers?” Shouldn’t I be writing about the adult experience? Isn’t that more of a “serious” subject worthy of serious literature? Well, I’ve found that I'm not interested in the normal teen problems of who to date or who to take to prom, or why was that girl staring at me in biology? What I do love is writing from a teen’s point of view. How they see the world. Their hopes and dreams. Their fears and concerns. I know what adults think about, and quite frankly, it’s not that interesting because I already live that life every day. So I tend to enjoy writing stories about the experiences of extra-ordinary teen characters who lead fascinating lives. Or lives I wish I had when I was a teen.
Another perk of writing young adult fiction is being able to finally understand a group of humans that have eluded me for over thirty-five years. Women. Now, do I fully understand them? No. But-- hear me out—I have learned how to empathize with their worldview and understand their fears and concerns. Reading about those young female heroines of YA novels gave me a new perspective on how women think. For instance, how they see other women, how they see themselves, and how they see men. Also, the anxieties and fears we both share. Similarities that define both sexes as human beings. It's been an eye-opening experience.

I wish I had this knowledge when I was a young man because it would have helped me understand that girls were not these strange creatures with alien-type brains…but they were more like me than I could ever imagine.

 In terms of the young adult book world, I think my approach to writing young adult novels is different from other authors. I tend to write larger-than-life stories full of escapism, instead of a teen drama set in high school. There 's nothing wrong with those types of books. Far from it. Many of those books help teens navigate through serious subjects and provides them the power to take control of their problems and concerns. Or sometimes it can show them that they are not alone.

But I think some teens want that escapism from their normal lives. They want to dream. They want to be inspired. They want to stretch themselves beyond what they think is possible.


If I can help one young reader think beyond their four walls of existence, and embrace the larger world around them, then I consider my job done.

 Doug Solter began writing screenplays in 1998, then made the switch to writing young adult fiction in 2008. Doug has worked in television for over twenty years. So far in his life, Doug has enjoyed wine on the streets of Barcelona. Hiked the mountains. Loved a cat. Rang up vanilla lattes at Starbucks. Enjoyed a Primanti's sandwich in Pittsburgh. And one summer he baked pizzas and crazy bread for money when Michael Keaton was Batman. Doug lives in Oklahoma and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Tomorrow Always Lies
What if you met the perfect boy, but discovered he was an android? When Nadia first met him, Robert was an awkward boy with striking green eyes, hardly someone on the FBI's most wanted list. But when Robert reveals his secret, Nadia and the Gems are thrown into a cross-country chase dodging FBI agents, Russian mercenaries, and a Polynesian giant named Kawiki. Who are the Gems? A talented group of teen girl spies who know how to take care of themselves.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lessons Learned From Marc Jacobs' Masterclass

I recently gifted myself the all-access pass to Masterclass, which lets me watch all the classes for the period of a year. I initially bought it because I wanted to take the classes taught by writers such as James Patterson and Shonda Rhimes, but I was immensely surprised how much I am learning from creatives in completely different fields. 

Although I have heard of prominent fashion designers of course, my knowledge of fashion is limited to gawking at the gorgeous dresses on the Oscar red carpet and watching The Devil Wears Prada. Just out of curiosity I decided to start watching Marc Jacobs’ Masterclass, and I was so hooked, I raced through the course in about a week. 

While I have no interest in becoming a fashion designer, I was surprised at how much of the advice is actually applicable to writers and those in creative fields other than fashion. I thought I would share a few of these lessons.

1. Be obsessive about details. Marc Jacobs is obsessive with the details that go into his clothes, whether the type and position of button or the type of stitching. He not only ensures that the more obvious elements such as the cut and style and fabric type come together to create a beautiful garment, he focuses on the smallest details, so that each garment sends exactly the right message or is pulled together in exactly the right look.

As an author, this level of attention to detail means going beyond ensuring that your research is accurate or that your story has a satisfying ending. It means creating a bibliography that is different from the usual list of references that every author includes, perhaps telling a story about the references you included and the interviews you conducted. Jeff Goins did an unusual take on the standard bibliography in Real Artists Don’t Starve. It means ensuring that even your secondary characters are interesting and full, not mere cardboard cut-outs included to prop up the main characters. Jane Austen’s most memorable characters were actually secondary characters, such as Mr. Collins or Mrs. Bennett. 

2. Iterate. One surprising thing I learned from Marc Jacob was that he doesn’t simply get a flash of inspiration, draw a sketch and get a garment stitched from that sketch. In fact, his clothes are the by-product of months of iteration. He might start with a wisp of inspiration, but that gets added to and transformed with each step in the process, honed over several months of back and forth, until finally he is happy with the result.

This is actually really good news for a writer. Often, we get stuck and aren’t able to write because we believe that we need to write something that closely resembles the finished article or chapter. Most professional authors don’t work that way. They start with a draft that stems from the original idea, but isn’t anywhere close to what they wanted to say. By working with a piece of writing, shaping and editing and honing the words, they are able to get the piece to a place where is publishable. It may not be perfect, but it is often a completely different piece of writing than the initial rough draft. 

3. Get inspiration from different sources. Marc Jacobs shared his sources of inspiration, which were really varied even within a single collection. He took ideas from earlier eras of fashion, Hollywood, certain types of music, stylish women he admired and from many other sources. 

As an author, I find inspiration often from the most varied sources. And sometimes when I am stuck, I find doing something completely different like reading a book I normally don’t read or watching a different type of television show can spark something. 

4. Collaborate. Marc Jacobs mentioned his collaborators throughout the class. He talked about how his collections are invariably a group effort, with input coming from the pattern makers, other members of his team, even the models who help them to fit the clothes. 

Similarly, as a creative professional, we can benefit from working with others. Writers often get a new perspective on their piece from an editor. A musician can get useful feedback from a producer that gives their album an added edge. Some directors help actors bring out their best work on screen. Working with others can help us take our work further.

5. Be passionate. The most important lesson I learned from Marc Jacobs was how passionate he is about fashion. Even after working in the industry for years, he is excited to create clothes and put out collections. He loves the work, the day-to-day, through the inevitable ups and downs that come with doing anything creative. Not everyone will love everything he does, but through it all he loves the work and that shone through every lesson.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Much Ado About Writer's Block


Much has been written about writer’s block. In fact, I have spent countless hours searching online and seeking out books that will help me to overcome being blocked. Over time, I have realized that writer’s block is really another name for perfectionism. You can’t out anything down on paper, or type anything on the screen, because everything you can think of to say sounds wrong even before you’ve written it. The longer you sit in front of the blank page or screen in front of you, the harder it gets to put something down, and eventually, you just get up in frustration, telling yourself that you are blocked. 

Incidentally, I am a master at writer’s block. I spent years planning the first chapter, the first scene of a memoir that I wanted to write. This was going to be my first book, my most important book. If I didn’t nail the first scene, then the book wouldn’t come together. I never thought of writing the chapters I did know how to write, and simply putting the initial chapter in place later. Eventually, of course, I did employ that approach, and wrote other books; but because of that thinking I lost years of writing time. 

Perfectionism in writing is an insidious thing. It creeps up in the guise of “standards”. Who wouldn’t want to write well? Or ensure that they do a good job?

But there is a difference between having standards and perfectionism. Having standards means you care about quality, maybe you go over your work one more time, you take extra care while editing, you strive harder to get better as a writer. Perfectionism tells you that you have to get it right in one draft. There is no room for improvement, no room for error. With that attitude, no wonder we freeze up when faced with the prospect of having to write a first sentence. We stare at the blank page, aware of the importance of that first sentence and think - “This has to grab the reader. This has to be witty and entertaining and shed light into the mysteries of life”. No wonder we are paralyzed. 

How do you get away from perfectionism? You remind yourself that what you’re working on is just a draft. I had a professor in law who introduced our class to the concept of the ‘zero draft’. This was the stage even before the first draft, which even though it has the word ‘draft’ in it, most people including myself, associate with the final or near-final version of something. That way, having a zero draft gives you a chance to write an unpolished, messy draft. Ever since, I always started my academic papers, and later my books, with a zero draft. 

Which hasn’t stopped me from having several other drafts as well. When asked how many drafts a piece of writing might need, writing coach Hilary Rettig said, “As many as it takes”. 

I think the best way to combat the tendency towards perfectionism in your writing is to give yourself permission - permission to write something that needs to be edited. Permission to write something that isn’t quite finished yet. And permission to write and publish something that isn’t perfect, but is something better - it represents you. 

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